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I watched him carefully contour the temporary crown. He wore magnifying lenses on his forehead while four high-speed tool cables neatly arched across his tray. His assistant carried out requests with the precision of a long-time loving partner who honors his mentor.

My dentist sanded and polished, turned and shaped the provisional molar cap that he had created with a malleable impression material. I could feel his love for his chosen work. and wondered if perhaps he had a genetic propensity for dentistry inherited from his father. Regardless,  his own attachment to the field clearly integrated passions for both science and art as he strove for excellence in both.

My hero definitely was not following a Business Model. High-tech dentistry procedures and solutions created in the last ten years had removed connection to the bigger picture of the work itself, the unique way in which each individual used and abused his or her mouth. Individuality had slid out of the equation. Most dentistry had become a matter of efficiency, cost, “best practices” that could be statistically supported, rather than a search for a unique fit for the specific person that accounted for unique factors. It ignored potential lifespan, actual lifestyle, priorities and willingness to invest in a more costly initial solution – in time, money and energy – for a more distant chance at minimal maintenance, durability. How could it take into account the porcelain crowns on my upper teeth, crafted decades before I met him, which had managed to wear holes in the gold on the bottom molar?

He indeed practiced “gentle dentistry”.  He was not motivated by marketing , but by love for his art, respect for his craft, and grounding in science. His connection to his work was a luxury that brought me the blessings of excellence, a sacred encounter on the day after our return from nearly a month in Paris. The gaping hole where the old crown had fallen out and that I had lived with an ocean away for more than three weeks was now carefully fitted with a temporary crown, awaiting delivery of the more permanent solution that would arrive in three weeks.

Decades ago, Yale psychologist Margaret Clark documented differences in relationships when a person is “doing business” versus “doing family”. Transactional relationships are based on exchanges, giving and getting. In contrast, attachment relationships consider individuals’ needs and welfare to be priorities. The rigors of a balance sheet are replaced by the empathetic concerns for quality of life. Compassion or commitment or sheer communal connection replace motivation for personal gain. “What’s in it for me?” fades into “How can I best help?”

If we are lucky, we find ways to work that can nourish both sides of ourselves, allow us to tend to our own very real needs while contributing something worthwhile to others, to the planet. The results often can’t be quantified, easily evaluated for efficiency and effectiveness. The passion that fuels love of one’s work is based on a unique synthesis of talents, abilities and expertise matched to the consequences of putting what is excellent, good, or beautiful into the world. It isn’t tangible. It often cannot be measured. But love for what one does can be very real.